The Latest: CDC says US cases down, but 3 variants detected

WASHINGTON — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are down in recent weeks, but three mutations that are causing concern have been detected in the U.S.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Monday at the White House coronavirus briefing that most of the dozens of U.S. cases of coronavirus mutations, or variants, involve the strain first detected in the United Kingdom.

But three cases involving a worrisome mutation first detected in South Africa have also been confirmed, as well as one case involving a strain first detected in Brazil.

The UK strain spreads more easily and is believed to be deadlier, but the South Africa strain is prompting even more concern because of early indications that vaccines may not be as protective against it.

Walensky urged Americans to get vaccinated as soon as shots become available to them, and stressed it’s no time to relax basic precautions such as wearing masks.



— AstraZeneca to send European Union 9 million more doses this quarter, tamping down huge public spat

— Vaccine skepticism lurks in Tuskegee, Alabama, known for syphilis study

— WHO team in Wuhan visits provincial disease control center

— Thousands flout virus restrictions at funerals in Israel

— Even if schools reopen by late April, millions of students, many of them minorities in urban areas, may be left out


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TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday that the number of new cases has decreased since early January when he placed Tokyo and 10 other prefectures under a state of emergency, but Japan needs to keep the guards up high for a while.

Suga is expected to announce an extension of the state of emergency, currently set to end on Saturday, for another month until March 7 after experts cautioned that lifting of the measures too soon would trigger a resurgence of the infections.

Suga said he will convene a taskforce meeting Tuesday to get experts’ advise before making a decision.

Japan as of Sunday had nearly 390,000 cases and more than 5,700 deaths.


LONDON — British health authorities plan to test 80,000 people in a handful of areas of England in an attempt to stop a new variant of the coronavirus first identified in South Africa from spreading in the community.

The Department of Health says 11 people in England who had not traveled abroad have tested positive for the strain.

It says “surge testing” in eight districts will aim to reach everyone over 16, whether or not they have symptoms.

Scientists will study the genomic sequence of positive tests, to learn more about the new variant and how it spreads.

So far 105 cases of the variant discovered in South Africa have been identified in the U.K. Scientists say there is no evidence it is more serious than the original strain but may be more contagious, and there are concerns vaccines may be less effective against it.


WASHINGTON — White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt says the government awarded a $231-million contract to scale up production of a COVID-19 home test recently authorized by U.S. regulators.

For months, health experts have stressed the need for fast, widespread home testing so that people can screen themselves and avoid contact with others if they have an infection. But the vast majority of tests still require a nasal swab performed by a health worker that must be processed at high-tech laboratories.

The test kit from Australian manufacturer Ellume allows users to swab themselves at home and check their status in about 20 minutes. It’s one of only three tests that consumers can use themselves, and the only one available without a doctor’s prescription.

Ellume said Monday it would use the contract to construct a U.S. manufacturing plant and deliver 8.5 million tests for federal use. It did not specify a timeframe for delivery.


GENEVA — The director-general of the World Health Organization noted that for the third week in a row, the global number of coronavirus cases dropped — but warned that it was too soon for countries to release strict measures being employed to control the pandemic.

At a press briefing on Monday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the drop in cases “encouraging news,” saying it showed COVID-19 can be stopped with currently available tools.

“However, we have been here before,” Tedros warned. “… Governments opened up too quickly and individuals let down their guard only for the virus to come roaring back.”

He said that even as vaccines against COVID-19 are being rolled out, the same measures governments have employed for the past year are critical, especially with new variants of the virus.


ROYAL OAK, Mich. — A Detroit-area health care system says about 2,700 people were able to use an online scheduling vulnerability to register out-of-turn for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Beaumont Health says it has determined a user publicly shared an unauthorized pathway for scheduling that allowed 2,700 people to “cut in line.” Beaumont is canceling all the appointments that used the unauthorized pathway.

Individuals who scheduled an appointment that way will be notified via email that their appointment has been canceled. Beaumont’s information technology team detected and shut down unusual activity Saturday on its Epic electronic medical record system.


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico’s Health Department announced Monday that it will turn its COVID-19 vaccine efforts solely to those 65 and older, suspending shots for emergency responders.

Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said the new policy will be in effect for the next four weeks.

The U.S. territory already has vaccinated more than 250,000 people, starting with medical workers and then emergency workers.

The Health Department also put a halt to vaccinations for the U.S. territory’s elections commission, saying it had not been authorized.

“We are not going to tolerate people jumping ahead,” Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said in a statement. “Our elderly adults are our priority.”

The department said vaccination of emergency responders will resume once the elderly have received their shots.

Puerto Rico has reported more than 156,000 confirmed and suspected coronavirus infections and more than 1,800 deaths.


ROME — Much of Italy is gingerly reopening from pre-Christmas coronavirus closures, with the Vatican Museums welcoming a trickle of visitors to the Sistine Chapel and locals ordering their cappuccinos at outdoor tables.

While many European countries remain in hard lockdowns amid surging COVID-19 infections and variants, most Italian regions graduated to the coveted “yellow” category of risk starting Monday. That has allowed museums to reopen, sit-down restaurant and bar service to resume and many high-schoolers to return to class.

In Rome, that meant that the Vatican Museums reopened for the first time in 88 days — it’s longest closure ever. Museum director Barbara Jatta said staff took advantage of the weekslong closure to rearrange some exhibit halls and do maintenance work that would otherwise be difficult to complete with the nearly 7 million visitors who normally flock to see Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” and Raffael masterpieces each year.


LISBON, Portugal — A sharp coronavirus surge in Portugal in January is showing signs of slowing down but the high number of hospitalizations continue to strain a health system already operating beyond capacity.

Portuguese authorities reported Monday 5,805 new cases —an improvement from the record figures of over 16,000 just over a week ago— and 275 more deaths for COVID-19. That brought the pandemic’s total tallies to 726,000 confirmed infections and more than 12,700 fatalities.

The southern European country continues to top the global charts with the worst 7-day rolling average of new daily infections and fatalities per 100,000 residents, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Portugal has also been in a strict lockdown for more than a week.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnian Serb health authorities say that 2,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccines have arrived in the pro-Russian, Serb-dominated half of the country, in what is the first shipment of any vaccines to the Balkan nation.

Alen Seranic, the Health Minister of Republika Srpska, which is how the Serb-run Bosnian entity is called, says the vaccines have landed in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo for approval by the country’s medical agency.

Bosnia’s Serbs have close political ties with Russia. The second entity, run by the country’s predominantly Muslim Bosniaks and Croats, has announced first shipments of Western-made vaccines later this month.

The country remains ethnically divided years after the 1992-95 war. A U.S.-brokered peace deal created the two entities connected loosely in a joint central government.

Seranic says health staff working with COVID-19 patients will be the first in line for vaccination. He says additional 400,000 Russian vaccines should arrive in the next two months.


JERUSALEM — Israel says it has shipped the first batch of the Moderna vaccine to the Palestinians.

The unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, said Monday that it coordinated a first shipment of 2,000 doses out of 5,000 doses for use by medical teams under the Palestinian Authority.

The transfer at Beituniya Crossing took place a day after Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office announced the vaccinations had been approved for Palestinians. Israel is leading one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns after securing millions of doses from major drug makers Pfizer and Moderna.

International human rights groups and U.N. experts have said Israel is responsible for the well being of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel denies it has such an obligation. The Palestinians have not publicly requested vaccines from Israel.


PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron urged the EU to better help its European neighbors in the race to get COVID-19 vaccines, ahead of a meeting in Paris with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic.

Macron, speaking from the Elysee presidential palace, acknowledged France and Europe “could have been more present” by Serbia’s side, in an apparent response to earlier criticism from Vucic, who said last week he had been counting on a lot more support from the EU.

Serbia, which sits at the heart of the Balkans region, received doses of China’s Sinopharm that enable the country to launch its vaccination campaign earlier this month.

Macron called on the EU to be “even more efficient” and “keep accelerating things” in the coming months to provide vaccines to the population in the bloc but also to better help its neighbors.


BERLIN — German police have broken up an illegal Carnival procession in a region that currently has the country’s highest coronavirus infection rate.

Up to 90 people participated in the procession Sunday in the village of Juechsen, news agency dpa reported. Police said Monday that participants had organized the event via social media.

The Schmalkalden-Meiningen county in eastern Germany, where Juechsen is located, currently has an infection rate of some 326 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days — Germany’s highest. The national average on Monday was 91.

Local council leader Peggy Greiser said that the event in Juechsen “is absolutely irresponsible and intolerable in view of the current serious situation.”

Germany is currently in a nationwide lockdown, its second. Its many better-known Carnival processions have been canceled.


THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The European Union’s police agency is warning nations to be on the lookout for fake COVID-19 test certificates, as crime gangs attempt to cash in on pandemic travel restrictions.

Many countries have introduced requirements for arriving passengers to show a negative COVID-19 test to slow the spread of the coronavirus brought in by people arriving from other nations.

Europol said Monday that recent cases reported by EU member states include a forgery ring selling negative test results to passengers at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and a counterfeiter detained by Spanish police for selling fake test results.

British authorities also caught fraudsters selling COVID-19 documents for 100 pounds ($137) each.


RAMALLAH, West Bank — The World Health Organization says the Palestinian Authority will begin receiving tens of thousands of coronavirus vaccines later this month pending agreements with manufacturers and regulatory approval.

The WHO said Monday that the PA would receive 37,440 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from mid-February “subject to approvals of supply agreements with manufacturers.” Those would go to frontline medical workers. It says the PA would receive another 240,000 to 405,600 AstraZeneca vaccine doses from mid- to late February subject to WHO emergency use approval.

The vaccines are being provided through COVAX, a WHO program to help poor countries acquire vaccines.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told a Cabinet meeting Monday that vaccinations would begin later this month with the arrival of 50,000 doses, mostly purchased through COVAX.


JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has acquired 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine that are expected to arrive in the second quarter of the year, the government has confirmed.

The purchase is a significant boost to the government’s efforts to acquire vaccines to reach its goal of inoculating 40 million people, representing 67% of the country’s population, this year.

The cost of the Pfizer vaccines will be announced at a later date by Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize, said Lwazi Manzi, spokeswoman for the health ministry.

South Africa is eagerly awaiting the arrival Monday of its first delivery of vaccines, 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the Serum Institute of India. That will be followed up by another 500,000 doses later this month. Those AstraZeneca vaccines will be used to inoculate frontline health workers.

In the coming months, South Africa is expecting to receive 6 million vaccine doses from the international COVAX facility, 9 million of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine when it is approved, and an additional 20 million from the African Union’s vaccine acquisition task team.


CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s prime minister says he expects all Australians will have been offered a free COVID-19 vaccine by October, but has no timeline yet for sharing vaccines with Southeast Asian and South Pacific island neighbors.

Australia last month approved the Pfizer vaccine and expects to start vaccinating in late February.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the National Press Club of Australia that his government has secured 140 million vaccine doses, enough to cover its population of 26 million “several times over.”

He said Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Zed Seselja were working with the leaders of Australia’s developing neighbors to share vaccines.

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